The House


Rescue MeRescue Me, which ended its third season last night, is a series at war with its own worst impulses. In every episode—indeed, in every scene—the audience holds its breath, waiting to see if the writers will find a note of grace or banality.

Even the finale, a mostly quiet and occasionally meditative hour about the sacrifices the men of the firehouse have made, was marred by a ludicrous cliffhanger in which Sheila (Callie Thorne, doing strong work in an underwritten role), in a fit of rage prompted by the admission of her on-again, off-again boyfriend Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary, stunning even in the show's weaker episodes) that he's not going to retire and move with her to the beach, drugged Tommy, then accidentally started a fire, which she somehow couldn't put out (and she's supposed to be a fireman's widow?) and collapsed beside him as the flames roared around them. Sheila, a once interesting character, had sunk to the level of a crazy shrew—an unfortunately common outcome for the show's female characters.

The cliffhanger was already objectionable for its lack of real suspense (does anyone really think Tommy won't get out alive?). But it was doubly unfortunate that it came at the end of a short arc (mostly dealing with the death of Tommy's brother Johnny, played by Dean Winters) that eschewed the show's usual on-the-nose approach to plot twists for something subtler. In large part, the season's last three installments had blended humor and pathos in a way that only Rescue Me can manage. It seemed possible that the show third year would end a high note—a major victory, considering that this season was problematic even at its best. Co-created and overseen by Leary and coproducer Peter Tolan, Rescue Me tends to mistake collections of bad events for high drama, it has trouble drawing believable female characters, and it often doesn't trust itself to go for an understated moment when an over-the-top moment is readily available.

So what makes Rescue Me worth watching at all? For one thing, it's a show with a singular voice. Both its best and worst inclinations stem naturally from Leary and Tolan's view of the world as a bleak place where only a mordant sense of humor will get you through the day. A lot of dramatic TV either sands off its rough edges or sharpens them to a fine point in order to compensate for a weak product (Rescue Me's FX stablemate Nip/Tuck is guilty of the latter). Whatever other complaints one can muster, it's hard to say that Rescue Me doesn't come from a genuinely artistic place. What Rescue Me offers, what keeps its fans coming back week after week are smaller moments that counteract the dramatic bombast. Susan Sarandon, for example, was mostly wasted in a guest arc early in season three, but she had a lovely monologue where she justified the kidnapping of Franco's (Daniel Sunjata) daughter, Keela (who, legally, wasn't Franco's to begin with), by pointing out to Tommy that his male chauvinist boys' club would destroy the spirit and ambition of an obviously bright girl like Keela. For a show with as many poorly developed female characters as this one, the monologue seemed to endorse the theory of many viewers that the women of Rescue Me do have interesting lives, even if we rarely get to see them. (Of course, this idea was never developed beyond that one monologue, but it stood out in a series of episodes that seemed unusually female unfriendly; more on this in a minute.)

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TAGS: Andrea Roth, Callie Thorne, charles durning, Daniel Sunjata, Dean Winters, Denis Leary, Jack McGee, John Scurti, Lenny Clarke, Mike Lombardi, Peter Tolan, rescue me, Steven Pasquale, susan sarandon


Trilogy of Terror And so, in 1975, Dan Curtis, the writer/director of Dark Shadows and Night Stalker (my favorite Darrin McGavin vehicle, A Christmas Story notwithstanding) joined forces with writers William F. Nolan (Logan's Run) and Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone, Duel) and star Karen Black, one of the quirkiest and sexiest actresses of the 70s, on Trilogy of Terror (Dark Sky Films), a triptych of made-for-TV horror tales. If you decide to give this one a look, I can save you a bit of time—about 50 minutes of the 76 minute running time, to be exact. Just ignore chapters one and two and skip to the third and final story. You'll thank me later.

For argument's sake, let's say you decide to watch 'em all. What do you have in store? Well, the first tale is titled "Julie." Black stars opposite her husband at the time, Robert "Skip" Burton (apparently, there was a time when grown men allowed themselves to be called Skip), who plays a randy college student scheming to bed his homely English professor. The whole thing put me in mind of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher"—not in a good way, but in that it had me pining for the subtle wit and stylish delivery of David Lee Roth; which is another way of saying that while "Julie" might have played back in 1975, in the post-date-rape-drug/Mary Kay Letourneau world, the whole thing comes off as some sorta grim and banal postmodernist joke.

Where it takes at least 10 minutes to guess the impending twist in "Julie," the second episode, "Millicent and Theresa," tips its hand so clumsily that even Mr. Magoo would be able to read these cards. Black plays both of the titular characters, two feuding sisters of polar opposite personalities. Theresa is an Oedipal nightmare, a red-lipsticked harlot who may have killed her own mother to have sole claim on her father's affections, while Millicent is a prude who is puckered up tighter than Pat Robertson's orifices at a GLAAD fundraiser. There's little to recommend Julie beyond the gimmicky appeal of watching Black throw herself into these two parts, and even that's not enough. The story's ability to engage us rests entirely upon Black's faculty to sell us on these characterizations, and while she charismatic, her technical skills are far from staggering, and in this segment, that lack is on full display. These first two segments are the sort of tales that might have been popular in the era of Poe and Hawthorne, and only for those who found those masters' works too challenging. They seem oddly hamstrung; they're unwilling or unable to tap into established, efficient horror conventions, and absent such effort, both stories seem bland and forgettable.

But just when you're ready to surrender all hope, along comes the third and final chapter, in which Black and her collaborators finally put it all together. "Amelia" is the story of a fragile and repressed woman, the victim of an overbearing mother trying to cut the figurative cord. To Black's credit, she is able to establish this struggle immediately, in a brief phone call to her mother in which all the pertinent information is conveyed through Black's reactions to her mother's unseen, unheard yet palpable browbeating. As Amelia tries to break a date with her mother so she can spend the night with her new boyfriend on his birthday, her mother ladles on the guilt, reducing her apparently happy and confident daughter to a puddle of insecurities and doubts.

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TAGS: Dan Curtis, karen black, Richard Matheson, Robert Burton, trilogy of terror, William F. Nolan


Deadwood

The closing shot of last night's Deadwood episode was never meant as a series-ender. But that's what it was, and for a number of reasons, it was both appropriate and troubling: Ian McShane's Al Swearengen kneeling on the floor of his office, cleaning up a bloodstain.

The blood belonged to one of Al's prostitutes, Jen (Jen Lutheran), whose only crime was vaguely resembling Trixie (Paula Malcomson). Trixie impulsively shot and wounded mining mogul George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) in last week's episode to avenge Hearst's contract killing of the good-hearted miner Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), husband of Alma Garret Ellsworth (Molly Parker), owner of Deadwood's bank and its second largest gold claim.

Of course Hearst demanded that Trixie be killed. Al realized Hearst never got a good look at Trixie's face because he was too busy looking at her exposed chest. So Al decided to sacrifice someone he didn't care about in order to save a woman he still loves—and save Deadwood in the process.

The shot of Al scrubbing that floor didn't just remind us of how many throats he's slit. (He's so experienced he's been known to lecture employees on their scrubbing technique.) It suited the narrative of this episode, "Tell Him Something Pretty," which complicated the show's master narrative—barbarism giving way to civilization—and showed how the former never really gets pushed out by the latter, just enclosed and domesticated.

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TAGS: brian cox, Dayton Callie, deadwood, Gerald McRaney, hbo, ian mcshane, jen lutheran, Jim Beaver, molly parker, paula malcomson, Sean Bridgers, timothy olyphant


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

When you hear people talk about those rare instances when a movie sequel turns out to be better than its predecessor, the usual titles spring up: Aliens, The Godfather Part II, The Bride of Frankenstein, the original Dawn of the Dead, etc. However, there is one sequel that I feel has been unjustly neglected for its superiority to the original and today I come to praise it. Twenty years ago today, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 hit theaters to the resounding thud of overwhelmingly negative reviews by people who probably remembered the original a lot more fondly than they should have and didn't recognize the sequel for the hilarious, albeit grotesque, satire that it is. This isn't just your run-of-the-mill followup to a famous slasher film—this is a sharply written parody about the perils of the small businessman, who in this case happens to make his living by turning humans into chili.

To read the rest of Copeland's article, visit Edward Copeland on Film.

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TAGS: edward copeland, the texas chainsaw massacre, the texas chainsaw massacre 2, tobe hooper


The Emmys

There's been a lot of complaining about the Emmys this year, and with good reason. The Emmy nominations have often ranged from puzzling to incomprehensible, but this year's crop seems worse than usual, featuring numerous examples of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater (nominating, for example, House the show, but not its star Hugh Laurie, who holds even mediocre episodes of that show together through sheer force of acting will).

A quick look at Emmy history shows that unless you're a massive, out-of-the-box hit in one of Emmy's favorite genres (cop show, medical drama or workplace sitcom, please), you're doomed to never gain recognition (which would put you in league with several critically acclaimed series that could only muster a writing nomination at best, including The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Wire) or to gain recognition several years after you broke through (it took three seasons of critical badgering and ratings improvement for Everybody Loves Raymond to break through—and by then, the show was starting to slip).

But if, perchance, a show manages to crack the Emmys, it's likely to stay in the game as long as it's on the air (For instance, Raymond and Will & Gracethe, the most recent example of egregious Emmy over-rewarding). Emmy even hangs on to shows that are legitimately entertaining, groundbreaking and interesting for far too long—in the late 90s, it seemed that it would take an act of God to get the Academy to ditch NYPD Blue and ER, much less their performers.

Moviegoers spend a lot of time complaining about the Oscars, but the Oscars at least make a halfhearted stab at credibility. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates respectable, middle-of-the-road movies far too often, but there's often least one film in the Best Picture lineup that's worthy of discussion by passionate cineastes. In this last year, the Oscars nominated such hotly debated titles as MunichBrokeback Mountain and (yes) Crash, which probably provoked the most discussion of all. But in an age when people passionately debate what, exactly, the numbers mean in Lost or which political parallels are being drawn in an episode of Battlestar Galactica, what does it benefit anyone to nominate The West Wing yet again for doing the same old thing it has every year? The West Wing is a thoughtfully written, handsomely-produced show, but in the past few years, what, if anything, has it added to discourse on either politics or television?

To answer these rhetorical questions, let's back up a bit and consider the mechanics that result in these nominations.

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TAGS: edie falco, emmy awards, everybody loves raymond, frasier, house, Michael Chiklis, the sopranos, the west wing, tom o'neil, will & grace


Oliver Stone

Veteran. Agitator. Provocateur. Bully. Conspiracy nut. Patriot. These are just some of the labels used over the years to describe Oliver Stone. (Subtle isn't one of them.) He has spent his filmmaking career charting the currents that propelled America in the post-war era: war, greed, sensationalism, sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Like Jean-Luc Godard, Stone embraces myth then cuts it up to reveal a truth at its heart. Whether it's the dark side of the counterculture (The Doors), the moment America entered the media age of paranoia and punditry (JFK), the ambition—and folly—that comes with being the leader of the most powerful country in the world (Nixon), or the corporatization of America (Wall Street, Any Given Sunday), Stone has used film to chronicle the dreams, fears, and disillusionments that marked the last half of the 20th century as the most creative—and destructive—in U.S. history. (Is it really a surprise that Stone's latest movie is about the defining moment of the 21st century?)

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TAGS: born on the fourth of july, charlie sheen, eric bogosian, james belushi, james woods, martin sheen, meg ryan, michael douglas, oliver stone, platoon, ron kovic, salvador, talk radio, the doors, tom berenger, val kilmer, wall street, willem dafoe


Deadwood

Deep down, you just knew that Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) was too good to live.

When we first met him, the Deadwood character was a grizzled, foulmouthed prospector. You sensed decency there, but it was buried under so many layers of hard experience that you weren't sure if he'd ever excavate it. Yet over three seasons, he established himself as one of the se ries' most good-hearted characters, along with Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), Martha Bullock (Anna Gunn) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie). Time and time again, Ellsworth stepped up and did the right (often difficult) thing, sacrificing his own comfort to give comfort to others, namely his wife, mining heiress, banker and drug addict Alma Garret (Molly Parker), and her adopted daughter Sofia (Bree Seanna Wall), who was orphaned in a stagecoach attack in the show's very first episode.

And now he's gone—shot dead in a tent by a Pinkerton goon while seeing to Alma's gold claim in Sunday's episode "The Cat Bird Seat." That Ellsworth's death was so brutally matter-of- fact—banal, even, like the death of certain Sopranos characters—somehow made it more hurtful, because he was on his way toward being not just a good person, but a great and significant one, an example of how to behave toward one's fellow human be ings. Just last week, when Alma was shot at by a Pinkerton in the employ of her chief business rival, George Hearst (Gerald McRaney)—in an attempt to spur El lsworth and Alma's ex-boyfriend, Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Swearengen), into a violent reprisal that would give Hearst an excuse to level the town—El lsworth let himself be talked down from his rage. To invoke the old western cliché, he refrained from doing what a man's gotta do. Now one wonders what might have happened if he'd gone ahead; he still might have ended up dumped in a buckboard, but at least he might have taken one or two Pinkertons with him.

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TAGS: Anna Gunn, brad dourif, Bree Seanna Wall, david milch, Dayton Callie, deadwood, Gerald McRaney, hbo, ian mcshane, jeffrey jones, Jim Beaver, keith uhlich, molly parker, paula malcomson, slant magazine, the sopranos, timothy swearengen, william sanderson


Home at Home

Home

Home, an ensemble romantic drama written, edited and directed by the proprietor of this blog and shot in and around his home in Brooklyn, is now available on DVD by way of Vanguard Cinema. The disc includes the movie, a trailer, a stills gallery, supplemental material about casting, shooting and sound design, and two director's commentary tracks—one featuring anecdotes about production and editing, and a second, more personal track that discusses the significance of the house and fesses up to how the movie's various subplots were drawn from life. You can rent Home through Netflix and buy it through Barnes and Noble and Amazon. For more information, visit the movie's website, or see Vanguard's page by clicking here.

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TAGS: home, matt zoller seitz, vanguard cinema


Vanished

Vanished, debuting tonight at 9 p.m. on Fox, is, if nothing else, a seminar on just how much of a role good casting plays in the success or failure of a modern television show. In the pilot, a sub-par premise and a pedestrian script that just might have worked with the right actors (see Prison Break, returning tonight) fall apart and expose themselves as laughable thanks to a mostly charisma-free cast. Fox, of course, invented the modern "one story told over a season" serial with 24, and as Prison Break felt like that show's less talented younger brother, Vanished feels like Prison Break's less-talented, even younger brother.

The problem starts with the central premise. The show feels a lot like an episode of a procedural (a show like CSI or Without a Trace, where one story is told per episode and the characters rarely, if ever, change) stretched out over a whole season, with the pilot being roughly the first five minutes of that procedural episode (when the crime is committed, etc.). We get to see fingerprints lifted and watch rudimentary policework and the like. It's all very CSI (in fact, creator Josh Berman wrote for CSI).The genius of the structure of a show like 24 or even Prison Break is that each hour has a single, definable goal—in this episode, Jack Bauer is going to catch this informant and pry this piece of information from him. While that structure can grow tiresome (pick the middle eight episodes from any season of 24), it is something that looks like TV, as opposed to Vanished, which is an action movie trying to look like TV.

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TAGS: 24, csi, Gale Harold, john allen nelson, josh berman, Mimi Leder, ming na, prison break, rebecca gayheart, vanished, without a trace


Snakes

Snakes on a Plane does its potential detractors a great service: it wears its plot right out on its sleeve. As the tagline for the 1982 chainsaw Z-movie Pieces once intoned: "It's exactly what you think it is." The title has an air of William Castle about it, and has inspired all manner of parodies (Snakes on Claire Danes) and Cassandra-like predictions that it might be the worst film ever made. The latter is a notion given credence by New Line Cinema's almost slavish insistence on reshaping the film based on noisy Internet buzz from potential fans, and its subsequent refusal to screen Snakes in advance for critics. The defiance of a title like Snakes on a Plane makes it practically complaint-proof. It says: if you want to see the titular objects, you'll buy a ticket; if you do not, and you buy a ticket anyway, then you're a money-wasting jackass.

After star Samuel L. Jackson's Entertainment Weekly explanation for the lack of critics' screenings ("Those motherfuckers don't need to watch this!"), I figured Snakes on a Plane would be as bad as Strays, the USA Network movie about cats (represented in one scene by two fake paws on a stick) killing people. Predictably, I couldn't wait to get bitten by the flying snakes. After all, I run the Shameful Movies of Odie's Past Film Festival. But New Line's skittishness was for naught; far fewer critics went Rikki-Tikki-Tavi on Snakes on a Plane than they expected, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a fairly well-crafted B-movie projected onscreen, one that made no attempt at seriousness nor achieved a higher station than its pedigree required. If you're ophidiophobic, or suffer from the fear of flying not specified by Erica Jong, SoaP might freak you out. Everyone else should have a good, goofy time.

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TAGS: bruce james, byron lawson, david ellis, dirk benedict, Julianna Marguiles, Lin Shaye, Nathan Phillips, samuel l. jackson, snakes on a plane, William Castle







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